Several years ago I penned a tale titled Saint Nicholas, which I post every year as a holiday greeting to friends near and far. Knowing that many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming, I wrote this seasonal short story to remind us all what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.
Bruce Robert Coffin
I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.
My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around, investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.
One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I had just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.
After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me 10-6 (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home, stopping long enough to grab a drive through coffee along the way.
I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.
“Hello officer,” the receptionist said. “Merry Christmas.”
I returned the greeting.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”
“I’ll try his extension.”
I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. In one corner stood a small lit Christmas tree from which emanated the pleasant scent of balsam. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.
“Officer,” the receptionist called out.
“Mr. Ashby will be right out.”
I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.
Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.
“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. As I’m sure you know, some things are worth far more than money.”
I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you, officer?”
I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient?
“I really do need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby,” I said.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”
Now verbally he was letting me off the hook, but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids daily.
“What do you need?” I asked.
“It’ll only take a second. I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”
Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-one-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed during a shootout many years ago. Apparently, he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it, but she does.”
I sat down again as he continued.
“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a lighted ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It really is quite sad.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I’m not her son.”
“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up to get a visit from an officer in uniform. If you could just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”
I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s attempt at reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.
He told me that he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.
“Mrs. Perkins,” Ashby said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”
She turned toward me and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”
She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. Awkwardly, I bent down toward her. She hugged me tightly, even kissed me on the cheek.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I felt myself blushing.
“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.
I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.
I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had had a positive effect on both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them, but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her with only memories.
I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already piling up by the time I hit the street.
It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading over to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.
I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”
I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her personal belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.
“Can I help you, officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.
I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”
“Are you a relative?”
I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”
Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what your thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it a it differently. I believe Mrs. Perkins is the one who bestowed a great gift on me. She restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?